The National Party is expected to win the Upper Hunter by-election as John Barilaro targets Malcolm Turnbull.
NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro declared that "the Nationals are back" following candidate David Layzell's near-certain victory in the Upper Hunter by-election.
Mr Barilaro refused to declare victory "100%" with some pre-poll votes still to be counted, but said the Nationals' chances of winning the seat they have held for 90 years "would have to go drastically wrong from here."
Mr Barilaro was overjoyed on Saturday night as the results for Mr Layzell came in, offering a tongue-in-cheek nod to former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Mr Turnbull backed Independent Kirsty O'Connell in the by-election, donating $3,000 to her campaign, and attacked the Nationals for "selling the community's health" and "cozying up to" mining companies.
"On Saturday night, it was the entire world versus David Layzell," Mr Barilaro stated.
"We were not supposed to be in the race, but we led the entire way, like a bloody good racehorse."
Mr Turnbull later tweeted his congratulations to the National Party, praising the Berejiklian government for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mr Layzell stated that the Nationals "haven't won yet, but we're on the right track."
He pledged to improve the region's "quality of life for my children and future generations."
Labor leader Jodi McKay admitted the outcome was a setback for their efforts in the region, but the party is now focusing on the 2023 election.
"We have to ensure that we improve," Ms McKay stated.
"In the future, we have to convince this region that it is a Labor region."
We have two years to demonstrate to Upper Hunter residents that we are a party worthy of their support."
Despite the preliminary results, Ms McKay stated that this was "not a ringing endorsement of the government."
Premier Gladys Berejiklian previously stated on Saturday that victory in the Upper Hunter by-election "would alter the course of history."
A majority government was on the line until Liberal Minister Gareth Ward moved to the crossbench last week, effectively putting a majority government out of reach regardless of the Upper Hunter result.
A Nationals defeat would have made governance more difficult, as it would have further entrenched the Berejiklian government as a minority government.
Thirteen candidates contested the seat in the Upper Hunter by-election, vying for more than 56,000 votes.
The NSW Electoral Commission distributed 3,073 postal vote packs, of which 2,730 have been counted thus far.
Only two pre-poll centres have been counted: Singleton, which received 6,643 ballots, and Quirindi, which received 1,180 ballots.
Pre-polls also accounted for a sizable portion of votes.
Pre-poll votes totaled 19,310, representing 34.4 percent of the area's enrolment.
Cam Whalan, a spokesman for the Commission, said the various voting methods, including the Commission's technology-assisted internet and telephone voting platform, may prolong the final count.
“The majority of people voted early in person, but we also had a mix of postal votes and iVote votes... so everyone's postal votes must be returned by 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday, May 26th.”
The Commission announced that postal ballots would be counted beginning Monday morning.
The seven-week campaign began with the resignation of Nationals MP Michael Johnsen following allegations that he raped a sex worker in the Blue Mountains in 2019 and the subsequent release of several text messages between Mr Johnsen and the sex worker sent while he was in the Assembly.
Mr Johnsen has maintained his innocence.
Mr Johnsen's seat was once considered extremely safe for the National Party, but he was narrowly elected in both the 2015 and 2019 elections.